Yair Netanyahu, the eldest son of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, has been a constant figure in the media over the past two weeks.
Last week, Channel 10 television reported that Australian billionaire James Packer – former fiancé of singer Mariah Carey and a business partner of Donald Trump’s pick for Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin – has hosted the premier’s son at his properties. Packer, who is reportedly seeking Israeli citizenship, hosted Yair Netanyahu, 25, for a month at an apartment he owns in a Tel Aviv hotel, and twice abroad: once at a New York hotel, and for four months at his large home in Aspen, Colorado.
Netanyahu’s son’s name also featured last month when Channel 10 political correspondent Akiva Novick reported that Netanyahu Jr. was the one pushing for proposed legislation that would ban the use of loudspeakers to call worshippers to prayer, angering Israeli Arabs.
Following that report, a theory was floated that Netanyahu’s son was familiar with the issue thanks to the time his family spends in their home in Caesarea – one of Israel’s most prestigious communities, located next to the impoverished Arab community of Jisr al-Zarqa.
Yet according to a political source very familiar with Netanyahu’s son, this isn’t merely the whim of a spoiled boy who’s bothered by noise from a nearby mosque, but instead a move that reflects the far-right views of someone gaining increasing influence in Israel.
“I wasn’t surprised to read about that, because I know his positions,” the source said. “He’s on the far right, much further to the right of Habayit Hayehudi.”
The Israeli media spends a lot of time reporting on Sara Netanyahu, covering how she treats employees at the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, the various investigations against her and, particularly, the influence she exerts over the premier. But the public isn’t aware of the ever-growing influence of her son on the country’s decision making.
“It’s quite well known that Netanyahu changes his opinions on various topics when he’s with his family at the weekend,” a senior official at one of the ministries said. “What people are not aware of is the ever-increasing influence of Yair. He’s on his way to becoming the strongest person in the country. He is much more dominant than people think.”
People who have met Yair Netanyahu remark that, like his mother, he can get excited and explode rather easily – especially when it comes to defending his father.
One of Netanyahu’s former advisers in an election campaign recalls how an enraged Yair – though at least 30 years his junior – shouted at him for suggesting a different position than that held by his father.
He said this week that the younger Netanyahu sent him 40 to 50 WhatsApp messages in the space of a minute.
“The way he behaves is very much like his mother, Sara. His temper can also flare, and in such situations it’s best not to be around him,” said another source familiar with Netanyahu Jr.
Yair’s increasing influence grew during the 2015 election campaign, when Likud was trailing Zionist Union in the polls, right through to the last weekend when there was a real sense of a potential political reversal.
Thanks to a media blitz and huge propaganda campaign on social media – some of which remains controversial to this day (i.e., Netanyahu’s “The Arabs are voting in droves” comment) – Netanyahu managed to upset predictions and Likud won 30 Knesset seats and retained power.
To a large extent, Netanyahu attributes the victory to his and his family’s activities, including those of son Yair.
“Yair’s power has surged since the last election,” a senior Likud figure told Haaretz. “Sara talks about him as though he’s the next prime minister.”
The younger Netanyahu’s growing influence on his father is particularly evident with regard to the media, specifically new media and the social networks.
Yair was the one who brought a social media manager – his army friend, Topaz Luk – to Netanyahu’s office. Through Luk and Jonatan Urich, who also handles new media at the Prime Minister’s Office, Yair Netanyahu has given his father the power of new media and an understanding that by using it he can bypass all the mainstream media (the prime minister was generally considered a Luddite in such matters). New media is one of the reasons sources cite for the younger Netanyahu’s increased influence over his father.
But Yair Netanyahu is also involved and influential in serious matters that go beyond how the Prime Minister’s Office should conduct itself in the media. Haaretz recently reported that when one of his campaign advisers proposed, in December 2015, that the premier drop the issue of closing Channel 10, Yair Netanyahu intervened and told them that the channel must be closed.
One of 2016’s biggest scandals involves Israeli soldier Sgt. Elor Azaria, who is currently being tried for manslaughter after shooting and killing a Palestinian assailant while he was lying wounded on the ground. The incident took place on Thursday, March 24, and that afternoon the prime minister quickly issued a statement condemning the shooting.
But after a weekend spent with his family, the prime minister’s attitude to the incident changed. Sources in one of the ministries say that over that weekend and in the days that followed, Yair Netanyahu told his father it had been a mistake to issue the condemnation. Yair based his assessment on what he was seeing on social media, where tens of thousands of users were expressing support for Azaria, saying they thought politicians should support the soldier – just like Naftali Bennett and Avigdor Lieberman, who earned rave reviews online.
A well-informed source said Yair Netanyahu influenced his father’s move away from his initial response. Several days after the incident, the prime minister even telephoned Azaria’s father, in a step that angered then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
A source says that following the Azaria incident and its aftermath, Yair Netanyahu pressed his father to bring Ran Baratz into the bureau. The latter is a former media editor who had been disqualified for the communications chief post after problematic old posts about U.S. President Barack Obama and President Reuven Rivlin surfaced on his Facebook page.
What the Prime Minister’s Office was missing, according to Yair Netanyahu, was a real right-winger who could understand Netanyahu’s support base. Indeed, Baratz was subsequently brought in, several weeks later. He was hired in an advisory capacity, after the civil service commissioner wouldn’t approve him for the job of communications chief, saying he lacked the experience to work as a spokesman.
Baratz wasn’t the only one to publish problematic posts online. In June 2011, Haaretz revealed remarks by Yair Netanyahu from his private Facebook page, in which he wrote that soldiers need to do weekend duty “because of those damned Palestinians.” Elsewhere he wrote, “We, Jews and Christians, celebrate life and love; you Muslims celebrate hatred and death.”
After a media report that criticized his mother, Yair Netanyahu also wrote: “I hate the damned media.” The post embarrassed both the IDF spokesperson and the prime minister’s advisers, and the Facebook page was promptly deleted.
Yair Netanyahu was born and raised in Jerusalem, went to the High School for the Arts there, majoring in theater. He was politically active in high school, organizing a protest in favor of continuing the December 2008-January 2009 offensive in Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead, when Ehud Olmert was prime minister and his father headed the opposition.
As someone who dreamed in his youth of being an actor, Yair wanted to do his military service in a theater troupe. Instead, he ended up in the Israel Defense Forces spokesperson’s office. Several years after he finished his army service, he registered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as a student of international relations. He was active in Likud’s Lavi movement at the university, but didn’t stand out as a leader.
“He considered himself an expert in Israeli and international media as soon as he completed his course at the IDF spokesman’s office,” a person who knew Yair during his military service said. “If he saw a report or something on social media that the office should response to, he didn’t hesitate to call and say something.”
It seems Yair is accomplishing what he has sought to for several years: to be influential on the most burning issues where he has a strong opinion. This passion is what led him to join the IDF spokesman’s office when he was in the army, and he was posted to Central Command and afterward served in the international media unit on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road.
But his time there was probably more frustrating than successful. Accounts we have heard, some of which have already been published by the media, describe Yair Netanyahu as an undisciplined soldier, to say the least, often criticized and punished for tardiness or playing hooky. In July 2010, Netanyahu’s son was confined to his base for 10 days for being late. The penalty was later shortened to two days.
Toward the end of his service, he got the stiffest punishment of his time in the army: 21 days in confinement, for abandoning Friday-night duty to go out and eat off base. His infraction was discovered when foreign journalists telephoning the office received no response. He was found guilty of being absent from duty and failing to report accurately to his commanders.
Netanyahu’s sons are the first offspring of prime ministers to be placed under constant security surveillance. As a result, they each have a driver and car at the state’s expense, and a guard is assigned to them when they are abroad – similar to the security detail assigned for a cabinet minister.
In October, Yair Netanyahu was closely guarded while he was with his father and Packer at the UN General Assembly in New York, and also when he went on a roots trip to Poland with his mother and younger brother, Avner.
The Prime Minister’s Office refuses to provide the costs of this security, nor any other explanations regarding decisions about security for Yair Netanyahu.
Both of Netanyahu’s sons are protected by the prime minister’s protective unit responsible for the security of VIPs not covered by secret service detail given to premiers, presidents and some ministers.
A government source said, “Yair got a driver’s license, but I’ve never seen him drive. He is guarded like a cabinet minister. He has a schedule, he says ‘I’m going out.’ He is asked when, and he replies ‘8 P.M.’ But usually he leaves three or four hours later and returns at 5 A.M. Everyone has to be available for his requests.”
It is difficult not to notice the change in tone of responses sent by the Prime Minister’s Office in recent weeks; the flagrantly personal attacks on reporters, to an extent that is unprecedented in the relationship between the media and the prime minister or any other politician. Sources familiar with the office say that Yair Netanyahu, while he may not have worded these responses himself, is involved in the new approach, along with Baratz.
The source of Yair Netanyahu’s influence is his father. Unlike the offspring of previous prime ministers, Yair Netanyahu is not connected to the field or political activists, meaning that when his father is no longer in power, he is likely to disappear – unless he succeeds in building his own power base from the ground up.
Nir Hefetz, the Netanyahu family’s spokesman, said in response: “This is a bizarre article, distorted and twisted, and one big chunk of nonsense full of lies, embarrassing to yourselves and your newspaper. This story is the continuation of a deliberate campaign your newspaper is conducting against the prime minister, his wife and now his sons, too.”
With regard to security arrangements, the Prime Minister’s Office said: “Security arrangements, travel and accommodations linked to the safeguarding of the prime minister’s children are set by the office’s security wing, according to security needs and operational needs alone, and not by the prime minister or his family. The extent of security is determined according to the assessment of threat, which varies from person to person. The present prime minister’s sons are clearly identifiable. Naturally, the security wing cannot go into detail about the element of how a level of threat is determined with regard to each and every person being guarded.”
The Shin Bet security service said in response: “Guarding the prime minister’s children is the responsibility of the Prime Minister’s Office, pursuant to a decision by the cabinet. The Shin Bet is routinely involved in discussions of the Ciechanover Committee [which advises the government on security for personnel] and in this framework it relates to professional issues that arise, and doesn’t publish its professional positions regarding security matters discussed in closed forums.”